Twickenham racks up a century
Huw Richards
October 2, 2009
The Twickenham Stadium Centenary Ambassadors Dickie Jeeps, Lawrence Dallaglio, Alastair Hignell, Bill Beaumont and Rob Andrew, Twickenham Stadium, London, England, October 1, 2009
The Twickenham Stadium Centenary Ambassadors Dickie Jeeps, Lawrence Dallaglio, Alastair Hignell, Bill Beaumont and Rob Andrew pose at England's HQ © Getty Images

Twickenham is 100, an anniversary marked by an exhibition at the Museum of Rugby and the unveiling of a group of centenary ambassadors drawn from the veterans of England Grand Slams.

Although the early event that has passed into the game's generally recalled history is the first international, featuring as it did a rapid England try and the ending of 12 winless years against Wales, the opening match was a lower-key affair, the meeting of Harlequins and Richmond on October 2, 1909.

For the Quins it represented stability after a nomadic existence encompassing a dozen grounds across the length and breadth of London, most recently Wandsworth Common, over the previous 43 years. They were an appropriate choice - Billy Williams, the RFU committee man who located the land, was a Harlequin. They were reaching new heights under the leadership of Adrian Stoop, signatory to the Quins lease on the ground, and as a club history explains 'nobody else particularly wanted Twickenham'.

Momentous it may have been, but the event was treated in an extremely matter of fact way, leading the Sportsman to bemoan that 'There might well have been some sort of ceremony, even if it only consisted of the President of the Union (Mr T.C.Pring) kicking off or making a few remarks through a megaphone' and lamenting that the Football Association did this sort of thing so much better.

Instead, in front of a crowd variously estimated in the press between 2,000 and 3,500 and reckoned by the Athletic News, 'A fair attendance for a club match', the kick-off was entrusted to Harlequins forward G.V.Carey, later headmaster of Eastbourne College. The ball failed to carry the requisite distance, leading to the first scrum.

Heavy rain made the ball greasy and led to numerous handling errors, but the first try was not long in coming. In a Quins back division including five existing internationals and a sixth future one, it was claimed by centre John Birkett, playing only his second match after a year out with a knee injury and following in a pioneering family tradition - 38 years earlier his father Reginald had scored England's first ever try. Two more tries followed in the first quarter - first from Douglas Lambert, a powerful former forward converted into a back by Stoop, then Stoop himself, dribbling over the line before dropping on the ball.

It was, the Sportsman reported, a battle of contrasts between 'the Welsh-style passing of the Harlequins' and 'the classic rushes of Richmond, which reminded me of a high-class Scottish side'.

Richmond's more powerful forwards gradually asserted themselves and, while it was still 9-0 to the Quins at the break, became more dominant as the second half went on, reducing the Quins pack to 'a woeful state' by the end. Their two second-half tries, both converted, were scored by a forward - Oxford blue Walter Odgers, later a QC and author of several standard legal texts.

It was not, though, enough to deny the Quins their win. In between the two Odgers scores came what Athletic News reckoned 'the finest piece of back play' of the afternoon, Birkett combining with his brilliant centre partner Ronnie Poulton to send wing Freek Stoop, Adrian's younger brother, over for a try converted by Lambert.

"This complaint was to echo for years to come, while those about train services and a press box positioned to look directly into the sun might as easily be made in 2009 as 100 years earlier."

Comment, following Quins 14-10 victory, inevitably focussed as much on the ground as the play. Billy Williams enterprise had not been universally welcomed, the Daily Mirror condemning it as 'a costly white elephant' and complaining that a more alert organisation might have snapped up the Stamford Bridge site in Fulham when it became available a few years earlier.

But on this occasion, the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported 'General impressions seem to be mostly favourable'. Its own view was that 'it is of vast proportions, but the public are not so far from the players as at first would seem to be the case and a good view of the game is to be obtained from any part of the ground'.

Athletic News thought the weather had been an effective test of the new stadium 'you can see your football in comfort at Twickenham, without getting wet despite the heaviest storm'. Around 20,000, including 6,000 in the two grandstands, could be accommodated in the new ground, although the Sportsman reckoned 'the crowd will rarely exceed 16,000'.

Most complaints concerned the length of the grass, which the Sportsman blamed for frequent stumbles by runners. This complaint was to echo for years to come, while those about train services and a press box positioned to look directly into the sun might as easily be made in 2009 as 100 years earlier.

As the Sportsman rightly pointed out in its rumblings about the lack of ceremony 'it really will mark a new era'. For the Quins it presaged a fine season, unbeaten at home or away until one of the best teams in Oxford University history won at Twickenham on February 19.

Quins remained tenants until the 1990s, although in later years their occupation was largely an early season tradition, with other matches increasingly located a few hundred yards away at the developing Stoop Memorial Ground. It helped make them the most influential club in England. While men like Stoop and Wavell Wakefield would have counted under any circumstances, simple physical proximity to the RFU offices certainly also helped.

That clout, though, may have come at a price. Philip Warner's club history recalls that 'Twickenham has been a mixed blessing. The stands are so vast that the normal club attendance looks completely insignificant, and playing in the middle of empty stands is not the most heartwarming experience. Another more serious aspect of the First XV playing at Twickenham has been its effect on club unity'. With lower teams playing elsewhere, there was little of the mixing between players at different levels found in other clubs.

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